“They shall be priests of God and of Christ; and shall reign with him a thousand years. And when the thousand years shall be finished, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, and shall go forth, and seduce the nations.”(Apocalypse, 20, 1-7) The biblical book of the Apocalypse describes, as shown, the end of the world as we know it. How did people from the middle ages perceive this fear of the new millennium?
For many years, especially during romanticism, the common belief was that this fright spread like the plague and freezed the western world; however more nuances are to be introduced into the matter. The italian poet Giosuè Carducci (1835-1907) described this historical moment by these words: “Could you imagine the sun rise on the first day of the year one thousand, it was a promise of life for the generation who were exiting the X century” (translated from italian). This interpretation is part of a collective thought that has been modified and dramatized by time and many historians are nowadays questioning the truth behind the mystification.
During the Middle Ages, uncertainties in society were justified by the constant reminder of the presence of diseases, war and death. »Medieval folk lived in a more or less constant state of apocalyptic expectation, » said Bernard McGinn, a leading scholar of medieval religion at the University of Chicago. What needs to be clarified is if the year 999 really had people paralyzed in terror. The Italian historian Alessandro Barbero explains in a conference of Il festival della Mente that, when looking for proof of this phenomenon, researchers usually come across people living a normal life. One of the exemple he cites is the papal edict made by pope Sylvester II with the monastery of Fulda in Germany dating back to December 31st 999. In this contract he explicits the clause concerning the granting of land for the upcoming years, showing how life kept going on.
Moreover in 998 Abbon de Fleury, wrote a small book addressing the king of France, to warn the monarch on the need to remodel the culture and beliefs during his reign. Concerning the apocalyptic history he evokes a mistake that was made regarding the calculation of the year : in fact it had been predicted that on the year in which the day of the Saint Friday (death of Jesus) and the day of the assumption (arrival of Jesus) would coincide, the end of the world would come. This corresponded with the year 970. Abbon de Fleury was then charged with writing to discredit this theory.
Historians such as Alessandro Barbero have observed that as soon as these waves of fear would come up, the priests and clerics were charged with putting to rest the conspiracy, but why was it so important to shut these voices down ? The church men knew that it is wrong to try and calculate the day of the end of the world as it is written in the Bible : “But of that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.” (Matthew 24, 36). The first who explicitly enunciates this mistake is Saint Augustine : “To calculate the time to know when it is going to be the end of this world or the advent of God, seems to me nothing less than wanting to know something that God intended not to reveal to anyone.” (translated from italian).
This historical moment has been modified through time by many mystifications who had a tendency to add spectacular and undocumented details. The first chain mail of this process was a chronicler and a priest : Sigebert de Gembloux, who wrote in 1100. He supposedly discovered that an earthquake happened in the year 1000, and that in 1002 a comet passed in the sky and that a snake appeared in the firmament. This last information is completely made up according to Alessandro Barbero.
This collective fear, often invented by writers over time, has created a scary “millennial” imaginary. Though these mystical theories would not find any adepts in our modern worlds… or would they? Find out more next week with Dinah…
Silvia Cavallini Campana
Picture : © Agricultural calendar from a manuscript of Pietro Crescenzi, written c. 1306 – Wikimedia commons